Features June 2011 Issue

How to Help Your Noise-Phobic Dog Get Through Loud Events

Five things to do to when your dog is afraid of thunder and/or fireworks.

July 4th is still a month away, but in many parts of the country sound-sensitive dogs and the humans who love them are already struggling with the effects of thunderstorms. Our Corgi, Lucy, is a thunder-phobe, and we know all too well the impact thunder and firecrackers have on her (and our) quality of life. Fortunately, the following can make life better for you and your dog during noisy events.

If you can’t get farther away from a fireworks show, try to at least shield your dog’s eyes and ears to reduce the intensity of the stimuli.

1. Stay home: Ever since the mid-1980s, when we shared our lives with our first sound-sensitive dog, Independence Day and New Year’s Eve have been occasions to stay home rather than go out and celebrate. You can relieve some of your dog’s stress with just your comforting presence. It’s harder to stay home consistently during thunderstorms unless you have the good fortune to work from home, but there may be times when you can make the choice to pass on an optional outing if a storm is coming.

2. Hold your dog: Despite what you’ve heard to the contrary, it’s perfectly okay to comfort your sound-stressed dog, as long as you do it calmly. If she wants to be in your lap, or next to you on the couch or the floor, let her. If it helps her to calmly put your arms around her and hold her, or do calming massage or T-Touch, do it. This is not operant reinforcement of her fear; it just helps her feel better – and may even work to classically counter-condition her very negative association with thunder or fireworks.

It doesn’t help, though, if you are stressed, chanting, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” over and over, while rubbing your dog as if you were drying her off with a towel. In other words, you need to stay calm, too!

3. Manage/minimize intensity of the stimulus: Reduce the intensity of the fear-causing stimuli by closing curtains to shut out the visual effects (flashes of lighting, lights, or sparks of fireworks) that your dog associates as reliable predictors of the bad noise.

White noise machines can help mask the sounds; so can the especially composed “Through a Dog’s Ear” CDs (throughadogsear.com; 800-788-0949), especially if you have played the CDs during relaxing times so your dog already has a calm, positive association with the music. (If you play them only during storms he may form a negative association with the otherwise calming music.)

You can also use Mutt Muffs to muffle the sound (safeandsoundpets.com; 443-536-6287). Use positive classical conditioning to convince him that the earmuffs make wonderful treats happen. (Of course, if he is disturbed by the Muffs even after multiple classical conditioning sessions, don’t force them on him.)

4. Counter-condition: Use CDs of thunderstorm sounds and/or storm sounds (you can find some online at findsounds.com). Start with the volume at barely audible levels – or even inaudible levels, if your dog is still worried. Pair this low-level sound with wonderful things, such as high-value treats, or games of fetch or tug, until your dog gets happily and consistently excited in anticipation of his favorite things when you turn the sound on. Then turn the volume up slightly and continue.

This is a long-term project; don’t expect to turn up the volume every session. This won’t fix everything; your storm-phobic dog may also react to wind, rain, and even the change in barometric pressure, but it’s a start. When a real storm approaches (or fireworks begin) try the counter-conditioning strategy at the earliest hint of stimulus, and keep your dog playing the game as long as possible. When he’s too stressed to take treats or play, revert to other strategies. It helps if you’re lucky with a lot of near-miss storms that give you conditioning opportunities without reaching full intensity.

5. Drugs: Short-acting anti-anxiety medications can greatly enhance your sound-sensitive dog’s quality of life. I give Lucy Alprazolam (Xanax) when storms threaten. It not only helps ease her immediate fears but also seems to have reduced her strong reactions to storms in general.

I can’t tell you which drug is right for your dog, but veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall strongly cautions against using tranquilizers such as acepromazine for sound-anxiety behaviors. “Ace” is a dissociative anesthetic; it scrambles perceptions, which may make the dog more fearful. If your vet isn’t well educated in the use of behavior modification drugs, urge her to do a phone consult with a veterinary behaviorist prior to selecting medications and dosages for your dog.

Comments (8)

Tried everything with my American Foxhound. What worked for him is a Thundershirt and paly his "Through A Dogs Ears" CD. He lays right down and goes to sleep. If it is a thunderstorm we may have to sleep with the light on so he can't see the lightening but it is amazing. Wish it hadn't taken so long to find a working solution. Biskit is 12 years old and has been this way since he was 6 mo old. He was found running the State Preserve in Mongo, Indiana with an old Blk & Tan Coonhound. We had had very bad storms the 2 weeks before he was found. We took him into Rescue and he has been with me ever since.

Posted by: Debbie B | June 5, 2013 7:13 PM    Report this comment

Our vet suggested playing some loud action movies during the fireworks (or thunderstorms) and turning up the volume, and that actually has worked great to mask the noises. We get to watch "Independence Day" on the 4th of July, and our dog isn't fazed at all by explosions when they come from the television!

Posted by: Karen H | June 19, 2012 7:08 PM    Report this comment

I also endorse the Thundershirt -- I was pleasantly surprised how effective it was in helping to keep my boxer/shepherd mix calm during thunderstorms. The Fourth will be the real test.

Posted by: Labbuff | June 28, 2011 2:24 PM    Report this comment

Which aromatherapy products would you recommend? I've had good results with Lavendar but wasn't sure if there was anything better. DAP is another product that can be very helpful

Posted by: Coral V | June 13, 2011 2:39 PM    Report this comment

Melatonin also helps some dogs. Start at least a half hour before the storm.

Posted by: BRIGITTE B | June 9, 2011 4:37 PM    Report this comment

The article didn't mention Rescue Remedy. My 10 year old Aussie mix gets very stressed during thunderstorms and a couple of doses of Rescue Remedy really help her to settle. It's good for a lot of other issues as well. I've been using it for almost 20 years...

Posted by: CAROLYN E S | June 6, 2011 2:34 PM    Report this comment

We have also had some success with the Thundershirt with our Labrador thunder-phobe.

Posted by: AMY S | May 31, 2011 11:56 AM    Report this comment

I've also seen dramatic improvements using aromatherapy as well as the Thundershirt, as long as both are introduced slowly and properly (e.g., prior to a thunderstorm so the dog does not associate the thunderstorm with the method of trying to reduce the stress of it).

Posted by: MICHELLE L | May 25, 2011 5:22 PM    Report this comment

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